Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
California Civilization: An Interpretation. By Howard A. DeWitt. Dubuque, lowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1979. Bibliographical Essays. Illustrations. Appendix. Index. 303 pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Brad Luckingham, Associate Professor of History, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.
From the clash of culture in the early days to the clash of values over Proposition 13, the forces that created a vibrant civilization are covered in Howard A. DeWitt’s new history of California. Written in a lively, concise style, DeWitt’s interpretation involves conflict as well as consensus, and it is interesting as well as informative. It is also well illustrated.
Following an introduction in which California’s unique geographical setting is established as an important ingredient in its history, DeWitt details the story of Spanish and Mexican California. Progress and problems in both periods are given attention. The author is especially adept at describing the personalities involved, and the rise of foreign influences. There follows a section on the early days of American California, including vital accounts of the Gold Rush and the first decade of statehood.
DeWitt includes economic, political, social, and cultural elements in his comprehensive survey, and little in the way of useful new research is omitted. He is concerned with essentials, and they are covered clearly and well enough to encourage a wide examination of the material presented, but he goes beyond the basic story. In his chapter on racial attitudes in nineteenth century California, for example, he develops the “Schizoid Heritage” in a meaningful manner. His material on land settlement, railroad development, and urban growth during the same period is inviting, as is his chapter on ethnic minorities, women, and blue-collar workers. His profiles of Henry George, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Jack London, and John Muir illuminate his section on California society to 1915.
The author is at his best when he deals with the Progressive Era, and California between the Wars, 1920-1940. DeWitt, in his many publications, has contributed much to our understanding of the first half of the twentieth century in California history, and his account of the rise and decline of Progressivism in the growing state is accurate and instructive. His analysis of the politics of reaction in the 1920s, and its impact on the rise of liberalism during the Great Depression is also impressive. Along the way, he writes intelligently about a variety of topics, including the formative years of California labor, the “movies as culture,” water problems, and California as “a veritable oasis for charlatans, faddists, and crackpots.” His portrayal of a society in transition in the 1930s in the Golden State is moving, and it leads well into the economic boom and population explosion of World War II and the postwar years.
An appealing aspect of the book is the author’s treatment of the period from World War II to the present. The enormous role of the federal government and the influence of the military receive deserved attention, along with the gamut of changes that occurred in California society beween 1945 and 1980. Also informed are his sketches of Earl Warren, Richard Nixon, Edmund Brown, Ronald Reagan, Cesar Chavez, Diane Feinstein, Jerry Brown, and other significant Californians.
Overall, DeWill has written an excellent survey of California history, and it should receive an enthusiastic reception. A handy bibliographical essay appears at the end of each of the sixteen chapters. A useful appendix and a good index are included.